Sunday, 4 May 2014

'Longbourn' by Jo Baker (2013)

Synopsis: Longbourn is a reimagining of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice that focuses on the lives of the Bennet family's servants. The main protagonist of Longbourn is Sarah the housemaid. Sarah is attractive, bookish and of a similar age to Elizabeth Bennet but is obviously living a very different sort of life. The other downstairs characters include the teenage kitchen maid Polly and the married couple Mr and Mrs Hill. Mr Hill is the Bennet family's butler and Mrs Hill is their cook/housekeeper. The Longbourn servants have busy but rather quiet and uneventful lives. However, a new footman called James Smith then arrives into the Bennet household. James is a dark and handsome man with a very mysterious past. He soon finds himself falling in love with Sarah. Although Sarah is initially attracted to James she becomes suspicious of his reluctance to talk about his past life. As a result, Sarah's head is then turned by a very good-looking and dashing former slave called Ptolemy who now works for Mr Bingley. But what is it that James is trying to hide from Sarah?

Oh, Longbourn. I wanted to like you so much more than I did. You showed such potential but what a disappointment you turned out to be.

I don't think it would take a particularly dedicated reader of this blog to realise that I'm a huge Jane Austen fan. I love Austen's books because of her delightful prose, her fantastic characters, her comedy, her insightful social commentary, and her beautiful romances. I love all of her novels - well, maybe not Mansfield Park - but my absolute favourite is Pride and Prejudice. I hate to go for the cliched choice but it really is. The reason why Pride and Prejudice is the cliched choice is because it's most people's favourite Jane Austen novel. It's the most famous of her books and it's spawned numerous sequels, prequels, retellings and parodies. Usually I'm very wary about these various Pride and Prejudice spin-offs so when I first heard about Longbourn I wasn't remotely interested. But after I read quite a few positive reviews of it, and then found out that it had already picked up a film adaptation, I became more curious.

I feel so let down by Longbourn. At first I found the book quite absorbing but as it carried on I became more and more dissatisfied with it. Initially I was intrigued by Sarah and her romance with James but I soon became exasperated with them. Sarah came across as whiny, naive, stupid and resentful. She made some really bad decisions and I could find nothing to like about her. James was just boring. Mrs Hill and Ptolemy were the only interesting new characters but they didn't get very much page-time. The characters from Austen's book weren't any better portrayed either. The only Pride and Prejudice characters that I feel Baker actually managed to capture quite well were Lydia and (to a lesser extent) Wickham. None of the other existing characters from Pride and Prejudice had any dialogue that rang true. It certainly didn't help that Baker took so many liberties with their characters! Mary is passionately in love with Mr Collins and is inconsolable when he chooses to marry Charlotte Lucas. Mr Collins turns out to be quite a sweet man and not at all pompous or annoying. Mr Bennet has a skeleton in his closet and isn't remotely funny. The glimpses of Elizabeth and Darcy's married life are odd and unpleasant.

Aside from Longbourn's characterisations my other big problem with this book was how ludicrously melodramatic it became. Towards the end the book became downright laughable. We get an affair, an illegitimate child, a closet homosexual who dies after having sex with his lover outdoors, a lengthy digression on the Napoleonic Wars, an army deserter, a paedophile, torture, prostitution, and a hint that Wickham has given Lydia a venereal disease. I don't consider myself to be a strict book purist these days but all of these things really offended me. Not one of them has the slightest place in a Pride and Prejudice story and I got the impression that Baker was trying to be deliberately provocative or controversial.

The sad thing is that Longbourn had the potential to be a truly great book. Its premise is interesting and Jo Baker's writing is really, really good - excellent in fact. Her prose is descriptive and vivid. Baker clearly did her historical research for Longbourn as well. In the beginning I was genuinely fascinated by Baker's descriptions of Regency servant life. I loved learning more about this different world and way of living that I knew nothing about. I also really liked the scenes where Wickham was trying to ingratiate himself with the servants. These scenes made a lot of sense and seemed very in-character. Wickham's father was a steward after all. He was born into the servants' world and he'd know how things are run downstairs.

I'm very reluctant to recommend Longbourn because I found it such a disappointment but I do know that there are some Pride and Prejudice fans out there have loved Longbourn so - proceed with caution I guess!

Rating: 2/5


samara said...

I haven't read this book, but I found myself nodding throughout your commentary. When people ask about my favorite Austen - or my favorite book in general - I'm quick to say, "Pride and Prejudice - but not for the normal reasons!" I hate that it's cliche, but I suppose it's cliche for a reason.

My only question, you say one of the mis-characterizations is that "Mary is passionately in love with Mr Collins and is inconsolable when he chooses to marry Charlotte Lucas." My readings have always led me to believe that yes, she was in love with Mr. Collins, and very disappointed in his final choice. To me, the only thing out of character with this is if she *showed* those feelings.

Did you read it differently? I'm intrigued now!

By the way, have you read Death Comes to Pemberley? I haven't yet, but between someone buying me a copy, the mostly positive reviews I've heard, and an interest in the BBC miniseries... I might just break down and read it.

Hannah said...

From reading 'Pride and Prejudice' I *have* got the sense that Mary was intrigued by Mr Collins but making her properly in love with him felt like too much of a stretch. At one point she's sobbing about it to Mrs Hill and it felt weird to me :S

I haven't read 'Death Comes to Pemberley' because all of the reviews that I read for it were really bad. But I did watch the BBC miniseries over Christmas and I actually really enjoyed it! From what I've gathered they actually managed to improve on the P.D. James book. The miniseries wasn't an ideal P&P sequel. I didn't care for Anna Maxwell Martin's Elizabeth. I loved Jenna Coleman as Lydia though and Matthew Rhys was a much better Darcy than I thought he was going to be :) If I were you I'd just watch the miniseries.

Lianne @ said...

Sorry to read you didn't enjoy this novel! I recently read it and while I didn't love it as I thought I would (so I guess in that sense I was disappointed too! I was surprised at how sombre the whole novel was), I still thought it was interesting to read this story with the servants as the main characters. I was however left with mixed feelings about the way the Bennet family was portrayed, and I wished the main character Sarah had left a greater impression in my mind.

Sort of commenting from the above comments: I'm usually pretty picky when it comes to reading these sort of P&P spin-off novels and sequels, but I personally rather enjoyed Death Comes to Pemberley, I think the characterisations were pretty close (all things considered). I still have yet to watch the miniseries all the way through but from what I've seen, I liked it immensely :)

Hannah said...

Hi Lianne! Thanks for visiting! Yes, your review of this book was definitely more positive than mine but neither of us were quite satisfied with how the Bennets were written.

Your thoughts on Death Comes to Pemberley have given me, er, food for thought :) I might just give it a shot then and I did like the miniseries after all. I hope you'll like the rest of it too!